Director Elia Kazan's classic 1954 drama On The Waterfront tells the story of dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a once-promising boxer whose life is derailed when he gets mixed up with mobbed-up labor union honchos on the NYC waterfront. As you may have heard, Terry coulda been a contender. On The Waterfront is generally regarded as one of the greatest American films ever made and won eight Academy Awards in 1955, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Brando.
New to DVD and Blu-ray this week, the Criterion Collection reissue of On The Waterfront features a new digital restoration and alternate presentations in the full-screen (1.33:1) and wide-screen (1.85:1) aspect ratios. Also included in the package are various interviews and commentary tracks reprised from previous DVD iterations, plus additional critical essays, a new making-of documentary and recent interviews with Martin Scorsese and Brando's co-star Eva Marie Saint.
Among the joys of digging into a reissue like this is gleaning insights from the bonus materials as to what makes a great movie work. To wit: The film's script, we learn, was based on a series of investigative reports published in the New York Sun in 1949. In the postwar years, violent crime and corruption were running rampant among the docks and shipyards of New York City. Journalist Malcolm Johnson exposed the organized crime operation in a 24-part series called "Crime on the Waterfront," and he remained obsessed with the situation for years.
Today, millions will celebrate Valentine’s Day with their spouses, significant others and loved ones. Millions more will celebrate it alone, and some will wonder why their lives aren’t like those of Audrey Hepburn, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, or (in my case) John Cusack, at least the characters they play on screen.
Though Hollywood has provided many pairs of rose-colored glasses when it comes to relationships, there’s a number of lesser-known films that are perfect for those finding themselves lonely and/or bitter on Feb. 14, that depict everything from the complexities of commitment to what becomes of the broken-hearted. Here’s five of our favorite picks.
If you’ve ever just not been that into him (or her), we recommend last year’s Save the Date (available on demand and through streaming services on YouTube, Amazon and elsehwere), which takes a number of ideas seen in countless indy films—uncertain 20-somethings, sisters with different takes on love, impulsive relationships—and finds a take that’s darker, more honest, yet still funny.
Co-written by the cartoonist Jeffrey Brown, whose autobiographical cartoons often deal with the small, sometimes biting moments of relationships, it casts Lizzy Caplan as Sarah, a woman who’s so uncertain about moving in with her musician boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend) that she doesn’t even bother washing the dried food off her plates before they go into her moving boxes.
Kevin is in a band with Andrew (Caplan’s Party Down costar Martin Starr), himself the fiancé of Sarah’s more grounded sister Beth (Alison Brie from TV’s Community), who’s perfectly happy planning her own wedding and a future of double-dating amongst the two couples. When Andrew gives Kevin the idea to publicly propose to the already-wavering Sarah, their relationship has a public meltdown.
This is the grist for many a rom-com, but co-writer/ director Michael Mohan gets as much mileage out of Kevin’s raw pain and humiliation from the breakup as Sarah’s rebound fling with Jonathan (Mark Webber), an overly-nice guy with a crush on Sarah from her day job at a bookstore. He claims he isn’t into marriage or being overly serious (every other character sees through this right away). The film pushes things to a moment where both Sarah and Beth’s relationships are in crisis, and Andrew’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but it never loses sympathy and understanding for its characters.
Sarah herself is somewhere between sympathetic and monstrous as she commits such social faux pas as drunkenly showing up at her shared residence with Kevin while he’s still vulnerable over the breakup, or in an amorous moment pushing an uncertain Jonathan to reveal some flaw from his past ("There's GOT to be something wrong with you, you're so nice”). Caplan’s very good at conveying that this doesn’t come from a place of malice or manipulation but rather youthful uncertainty, a fear of the ecstasy of a romantic fling curdling as it becomes something more permanent.
Supercop John McClane wants everybody to know he’s on vacation. So when he gets hit by a car or shot at by a helicopter or finds himself running from the fire of 10 machine guns, he screams at his attackers “I’m on vacation!”
There’s a lot of gunfire and crashing cars in A Good Day to Die Hard. Accordingly, McClane (Bruce Willis, of course) gets to shout his catch phrase a few times. He probably does it three times. It feels like 10.
McClane is in Moscow to get his estranged son out of a sticky situation with the Russian government. He’s not planning on hitting any gift shops, and his son—a CIA agent who’s got his whole situation figured out just fine, thank you—doesn’t even want him there. McClane’s refrain is confusing because he is not, in any sense, on vacation.
But he’s not going to utter a self-aware “Yippee-ki-yay” until the last act, and he’s got to say something snarky in the meantime, as he and his son jump from buildings and shoot up baddies, so “I’m on vacation” it is. This gives Willis and the movie a chance to announce that they’re not taking any of this very seriously. They know it’s the fifth movie in the series, they know that you think the only way this movie is going to be any good is if it’s transcendently terrible, and they are perfectly aware that there are better ways to spend your money.
But let’s not get carried away. From the way director John Moore opens onto a black screen with sounds of chaos to the first ludicrous cars-driving-over-cars car chase (which received numerous cheers at the screening I attended), to the burning inferno of the finale, there’s an idiot brute logic in the way this Die Hard gets through its admirably slender 97 minutes of deafening mayhem.
Chatter is kept to a minimum, and as the plot aims too big—reviving a Cold War-era disaster to propel the story into Major Significance—Moore’s direction maintains a simple precision, a clarity and immediacy that makes A Good Day to Die Hard seem almost visionary in context. I would venture to guess that this is one of the best fifth installment franchise movies ever made.
DAVID GATTEN FILM SCREENING AND DISCUSSION
N.C. State University
Caldwell Hall G107, 2221 Hillsborough St.
Fri., Feb. 15, 5-7:30 p.m.
This is the true story of how the ocean made a movie.
To be more precise, filmmaker David Gatten collaborated on a movie with the Atlantic Ocean, where the Edisto River empties its freshwater into the ocean’s salt along the South Carolina coast. Gatten put unexposed 16mm film stock into a crab trap, tied the ends of a 50-foot rope to the trap and his ankle, and dropped it into the water.
“The ocean made the movie,” Gatten says. “The exposure, the processing, the chemistry, the physical interaction—everything—was entirely the ocean. I didn’t do anything other than decide how long it should be in the water, at high tide, ebb tide, low tide. And how much film I was going to put in. The ocean and crabs decided how much film I was going to get back. They did the editing. They did the sound. I was the producer.”
Gatten made three such films in 1998, returning to the South Carolina coast in 2007 to make three more. This more recent set, along with five other 16-mm films from his acclaimed career, will be screened in a mini-retrospective on Friday evening at N.C. State.
It’s a rare chance to see the work of one of the country’s foremost experimental filmmakers with Gatten at the projector’s controls. In his omnipresent overalls, he’ll introduce the films, something he doesn’t often get to do but considers an integral part of the screening. Neither dramatic nor scripted nor off-the-cuff, he nonetheless sets the films up with a precise, evocative monologue before bringing the screen to life an exact beat after he stops talking. A screening is a performance, to his mind.
In the days before DVD/VHS, Netflix and endless online options — back when we had a little sanity left — TV binge watching was confined to weekend basic cable marathons. If you wanted to see all the episodes of a particular show in sequence, this was your sole option. Only the most dedicated souls braved those 24- and 48-hour endurance trials.
I tried it once, years ago, with David Lynch's serial freakout Twin Peaks. Like an idiot I went in without a game plan or any training regimen at all. Amateur move. By Episode 15, "Drive with a Dead Girl," I'd lost feeling below the waist and hadn't blinked in eight hours.
Thanks to DVRs, DVD series collections and Netflix's roster of quality on-demand shows (Arrested Development, Breaking Bad), we have a lot more control over when and what we watch. "Time shifting" is what the media pros call it. For many busy adults, controlled binge watching has become the preferred method of assimilating all the great TV out there.
In fact, I haven't watched a TV series during original broadcast since ABC's Lost wrapped up in 2010. That show left a bad taste when, after four seasons of twisty intrigue, the writers ran out of ideas and started resolving everything with gunfights. Remember when there was exactly one gun on that island, and it was a commodity, and Sawyer used it to shoot that polar bear?
But I digress. I'm here to recommend two recent binge-watching opportunities and another big one on the horizon.
NBC's impossibly reliable comedy 30 Rock wrapped up with its series finale late last month. It was a rather underwhelming end to the series, but it stayed true to creator Tina Fey's singular comic vision. The Season 7 DVD collection won't arrive until March, but meanwhile you can see all previous episodes from seasons one through six by way of Netflix's online video streaming.
For a movie that’s billed as a comedy, Identity Thief certainly leaves you with an empty feeling. Then again, the movie is about a con artist who steals from a dude who doesn’t even know he’s being jacked.
That’s what happens to Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), a Denver company/family man who foolishly gives his personal info away on the phone to “Diana” (Melissa McCarthy), a Florida gal who spends her days making up phony IDs and credit cards and cleaning out the bank accounts of poor schmucks like him.
Once his credit cards begin getting declined and the cops start showing up to take him downtown, he eventually heads to Florida to track down this woman and bring her to Denver so she can clear up everything. The movie turns into an oh-so-obvious, buddy comedy road trip mashup, where the two protagonists end up learning more about each other and all that bullshit.
Identity Thief is directed by Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses, Four Christmases), whom I starting to think is trying to outdo Todd Phillips for the title of World’s Lousiest Comedy Director. As with most of Phillips’ work, Identity Thief is tonally deranged. (Most of the blame should be attributed to screenwriter Craig Mazin, who co-wrote Phillips’ The Hangover Part II, as well as the third installment coming out this May.)
The film's first half is just a barrage of ugly, soulless humor, as Bateman’s character is surrounded by assholes who can’t seem to comprehend that someone could have stolen his identity (that is, when they’re not also mocking his unisex name). Those dicks soon become no match for McCarthy’s obnoxious sociopath, who greets our boy with everything from punches to the throat to insults about his man parts once he gets to the Sunshine State.
Perhaps the creators of this film realized midway through the production that we’re supposed to feel sympathy for McCarthy’s character as well, which would explain the movie’s weirdly sentimental second half. McCarthy immerses herself here, even shedding actual tears in a couple of scenes.
As darling and promising the pairing of Bateman and McCarthy is, their extemporaneous talents are sadly wasted in this film. Identity Thief is supposed be a fun time, but robs you of it the whole 111 minutes you’re sitting there watching it.
After nearly a decade of experimentation with motion-capture animation, director Robert Zemeckis returned to live action filmmaking last fall with Flight, starring Denzel Washington. The film tells the story of commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker, who must confront his demons after crash landing a airliner while drunk on vodka and high on cocaine. (You can read Neil Morris' full review here.)
Flight is a fascinating piece of filmmaking and a kind of stealthy movie business maneuver. The marketing and advance trailers for Flight highlighted the film's boffo action sequence — the plane crash — and the almost gimmicky angle of the airline pilot that shows up for work drunk. This is a news story we seem to see about once a month these days.
But as anyone who has seen the film knows, Flight is a much more complicated machine. The spectacular plane crash proves to be a kind of narrative feint concealing a harrowing addiction drama and character study. It's one of the strangest and best screenplays to come along in a long, long while. (It a nominee for this year's Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.)
Anyone interested in looking under the hood of this remarkable film will want to check out the superior bonus materials included on the home video release of Flight, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week.
In the first featurette, "Origins of Flight," screenwriter John Gatins reveals that the story was conceived in 1999, well before the media trend of drunk pilot stories or the heroics of Captain Sully on the Hudson River. Both director Zemeckis and leading man Washington (also nominated for an Oscar) go out of their way to praise Gatins' script. Zemeckis says that when he first read the screenplay, he realized it was the rarest kind of treasure — a complex R-rated character drama both sturdy enough to break new artistic ground and thrilling enough to punch through into mainstream success. Washington, among the industry's most in-demand players, signed on almost immediately. He considered the script "dangerous" and kept the first draft with him on-set as a kind of talisman.
In recent years, I've become fascinated with animated foreign films for kids. There's so much good stuff out there — some recent examples include The Secret of Kells (Ireland), Chico & Rita (Spain), A Cat in Paris (France) and Ponyo (Japan). These are movies you're unlikely to see in theaters, so you have to track them down on DVD, Blu-ray or digital download.
While I certainly appreciate the artfulness of these films — each has earned various world cinema awards — I have very practical reasons for keeping them on the shelf. I have two young kids at home and if I have to watch one more goddamn Shrek movie I'm going to kill myself.
Tales of the Night — the enchanting French animated feature new to DVD and Blu-ray this week — is the kind of children's movie you can feel good about putting into rotation. It's the latest project from French animation artist Michel Ocelot and it will provide you and the kids with some images you've never seen before.
Ocelet has worked in a variety of media, but he's most known for his "shadow play" style of silhouettes set against intricate and impossibly colorful backgrounds. The six stories in Tales of the Night have been compiled from previous television specials, anthologized in 2011 for European cinema presentation.
End of Watch — the intense police drama new to DVD, Blu-ray and digital this week — truly is a different kind of cop movie.
I know, I know. They all say that. But director David Ayer (writer of Training Day) executes an interesting game plan here and gets big results by going small. He narrows the focus radically by following two L.A. cops and their day-to-day experiences in a notorious South Central neighborhood.
Jake Gyllenhaal headlines as Brian Taylor, a young patrolman for whom the term "gung-ho" was apparently invented. As stated in the film's opening voiceover, Taylor fully believes in the concept of the thin blue line: That a brotherhood of good guys with badges is the only thing standing between a safe society and a murderous criminal class of bad guys.
Taylor's on-the-job experience seems to support this theory. Along with partner Miguel Zavala (Micheal Pena, Tower Heist), Taylor encounters scene after harrowing scene of violence and despair on the streets of South Central. When the partners break down one too many doors, they're targeted for bloody elimination by a terrifying Mexican drug cartel.
The film's narrative twist is that Taylor carries a hand-held digital camera with him on duty, as part of a community college project. Director Ayer uses the digital camera — plus lapel cameras and squad car dash cams — to deliver much of the film in dizzying first-person close-up. In fact, as the extras reveal, the original plan was to film the entire movie in the "found footage" style so fashionable of late.
Ayer eventually chose to integrate traditional cinematography as well. Good call. The found footage gimmick is too conspicuous and too implausible — why would the gangbangers have cameras? End of Watch is a good movie, but it could have been even better film if Ayer had discarded the shaky cam entirely. You don't need a reason to use weird, tight camera angles. Spike Lee does it all the time.
For several years now, I've held the considered opinion that Jessica Chastain is the single most beautiful creature on the planet. Now I know the truth: Jessica Chastain dressed as a goth rocker is the most beautiful creature on the planet.
Chastain's lovely performance regularly elevates Mama, the very effective new paranormal thriller from producer Guillermo del Toro and first-time director Andrés Muschietti. Fans of del Toro's previous horror movies (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth) will recognize his sensibilities all over this thing.
The film opens with a disturbing scene. A distraught father, who has apparently just killed his wife, speeds off in a car with his two little girls. The car crashes and dad leads the kids to a creepy old cabin in the woods. Some very scary things happen, dad doesn't make it, then we flash forward five years.
The girls, now age nine and six, are finally discovered — still in the cabin and living like feral cats. Actually, the way they skitter around on all fours is more insect-like and this is the first of the many, many disquieting images director Muschietti has in store.
The girls are eventually adopted by their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jaime Lannister to you Game of Thrones fans). Lucas' girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) isn't crazy about raising two untamed forest kids. But she becomes more agreeable when the local research institute offers a beautiful rent-free home, in exchange for permission to study the kids.
It soon becomes apparent that the little girls have brought a companion with them, a maternal yet decidedly terrifying presence from the other side of the grave. This is Mama. She's been looking after the kids for years and is none too happy with the new custody situation.